NP: August 17, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 25: A Vital Rail Loss

   

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A Vital Railroad Loss

(The following is the twenty-fifth in a series of articles having to do with the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg.)

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For popular interest the battles for Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad have never competed successfully with the Crater, the attack on Fort Stedman, or Five Forks. As far as the purpose of the Union campaign for Petersburg was concerned, they were of the very essence.

Cutting off Petersburg, Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia from the lower states of the Confederacy was a major purpose. Only a few days after the great June 15-18 [1864] Battle for Petersburg ended, Grant had moved on the left toward the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad and had dispatched a large raiding party for far-flung anti-railroad purposes. The infantry movement south of Petersburg was rolled back by Mahone. The raid ended in a rout at Reams Station.

So in August, 1864, Grant returned to the unfinished railroad business, with heavy losses but with more positive results for his efforts. The anniversaries of these actions occur this week.

To prepare the way for the advance on his left below Petersburg, Grant had sent Hancock and Butler to make a feint at Deep Bottom, north of the James River, just as he had done before the Crater attempt to take Petersburg. At a safe distance south of town, Warren’s V Corps and a brigade of cavalry under General Spear started out on what was called a reconnaissance in force. Orders called for taking advantage of any weakness which might be discovered but not for fighting unequal engagements or for assaulting fortifications. The chief purpose was to force Lee to withdraw some of his troops under Early facing Sheridan.

The possibility of an attack upon the Confederate right was considered, but making a lodgment upon the Petersburg Railroad seems to have been a secondary consideration.

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On August 18 [1864] the V Corps had taken a position at the Globe Tavern, beside the  [Petersburg and Weldon] railroad about four miles south of the city. Meade has designated the nearby junction of the Halifax and Vaughan Roads as an objective. From Globe Tavern (also called Yellow Tavern and Six Mile House) Warren turned northward toward Petersburg. Then in much the same kind of wooded country in which the Union II and VI Corps had encountered trouble in June [1864], the force was attacked by Heth’s division of Hill’s corps and driven back with a loss of about a thousand men.

On the afternoon of the following day [August 19, 1864] Warren was attacked in greater force by Heth’s and Mahone’s troops. The battle was fierce and confused. Warren himself had a narrow escape when his horse was struck between the eyes by a Minnie ball. Union General Crawford was taken prisoner but escaped.

Mahone had discovered and moved into a gap in much the same manner as he had done in June [1864]. The Confederates captured 2,700 men and forced Warren back to Globe Tavern, but reinforcements from the IX Corps enabled him to hold his position on the railroad.

The following day, the 20th [of August 1864], was relatively quiet. Warren was fortifying his position. The Confederates were mounting an effort to drive the enemy off the railroad.

On the 21st [of August 1864] Lee, who had been north of James River, returned and directed a stronger effort to dislodge the V Corps. Units from Hill’s corps made vigorous but vain attacks under heavy artillery cover. At one point most of Hagood’s brigade, which had helped to save Petersburg during Grant’s first attacks on the city, got inside the Union lines and fought their way out after the enemy thought they had been captured. There were Union cries of treachery on the part of Hagood, but it did not look that way at all to the South Carolinians. They were under the impression they were playing a game. And what of General Crawford’s own escape?

The result was that the Union had gained a position on the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad only a short distance south of Petersburg, and Lee could not afford the great loss which would be necessary to dislodge him. As always there was some criticism of Beauregard, who in Lee’s absence had been in command at the beginning of the action, for committing too few troops in battle, but Beauregard was subject to the same fact of insufficient strength.

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Globe Tavern, which was described as a large yellow brick building standing directly on the public road and close to the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad, became General Warren’s headquarters and one of the landmarks of the siege. The fact the establishment was known also as Yellow Tavern has caused some confusion. One recent Civil War book gives this as the place where General J. E. B. Stuart was killed. Of course, that Yellow Tavern was north of Richmond.

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The loss of the upper end of the [Petersburg and Weldon] railroad came at a time when Lee’s supply of corn in Petersburg was exhausted. Prices of food which was available immediately took a sharp rise. Lee had never expected to hold the [Petersburg and Weldon] railroad, so close to Grant’s left, indefinitely, be he had hoped to be able to hold it until the southern crops were harvested.

On August 22 [1864] Lee described the situation for President Davis: “As I informed your excellency when we first reached Petersburg, I was doubtful of our ability to hold the [Petersburg and] Weldon [rail]road so as to use it. The proximity of the enemy and his superiority of numbers rendered it possible for him to break the [rail]road at any time, and even if we could drive him from the position he now holds, we could not prevent him from returning to it or to some other point, as our strength is inadequate to guard the whole road. These considerations induced me to abandon the prosecution of the effort to dislodge the enemy.”

Paralleling the case of the Union effort which had failed in June [1864], a few days later there would be a sequel at Reams Station, a few miles to the south. The second battle of Reams Station would be one of the more flaming Confederate victories, but it would not have much bearing upon the fact of the loss of the upper end of the railroad most directly connecting Virginia with the lower portion of the Confederacy.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:

Source:

 

  1. “A Vital Railroad Loss.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  August 17, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-4

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